In an exceptionally ill-considered decision, on April 26, 2012, the Maryland Court of Appeals (highest court in the state) delivered a finding that not only held a landlord liable for a 2007 incident in which his tenant’s dog, an American Pitbull Terrier, escaped from a pen and mauled a child, but also declared that “a pit bull or any dog with pit bull ancestry shall be deemed hence forth vicious and inherently dangerous as a matter of law.”
While not banning pit bulls entirely (and not offering any answer to the question of how to conclusively determine if a dog actually is a pit bull or pit bull mix), the ruling has massive significance for all “big-headed dogs” in the State of Maryland. Not just the dogs themselves, but also their owners, and any humans involved with them in any capacity. Shelters and rescue groups are scrambling for legal opinions and advice on how to deal with the pit-type dogs already in their custody, as well as any that may seek refuge in the future. Pet sitters, veterinarians, trainers, groomers, pet-assisted therapy programs and other pet care professionals, in addition to landlords and owners, now face a huge liability burden if they provide services to pit bulls – or anything even remotely suspected of being a pit bull. Insurance companies, already touchy about pits and other breeds regarded as risky, now have a solid legal reason to refuse to provide homeowners insurance to Maryland owners of pit or suspected pit-type dogs.
The fallout is likely to be significant. The court’s findings even went so far as to hold anyone responsible who “knew or should have known” that the dog was a pit bull or pit mix, and offered services anyway. Not that they can’t rent, or provide services, but if they do and the dog bites someone they can be held strictly liable. Landlords and insurances companies aren’t likely to risk that. Pet care professionals may be more willing to take the risk, but with the “should have known” language, won’t be able to pretend, as has often been done in the past, that the dog is just a “terrier mix.” It’s probable that a lot of Maryland’s pit bull and pit-type dogs will die, as renters are turned away, homeowners face threats of canceled insurance, “no-kill” shelters refuse to accept them and full-service shelters decide they cannot bear the liability risk and on the advice of their attorneys, reluctantly choose to euthanize.
As this was a court decision, not legislation, it slipped under the radar of every group that watches the legislative process to combat breed-specific location. Animal advocates are now scrabbling for a legislative fix to this disaster that would take precedence over this otherwise binding decision that threatens doom for thousands of well-loved dogs in Maryland. Meanwhile, until clearer heads prevail, owners of pit-type dogs, or dogs who might be identified as pit-type dogs, might do well to avoid visiting, or even traveling through, this Mid-Atlantic state.